My reason for coming to Jerusalem is connected to how Jerusalem got to be here in the first place. So before asking “why am I here?” I need to ask “why is Jerusalem here?”
The first written reference to Jerusalem is in an execrations (cursings) document of Egypt from about 1800 BCE. Think of that dreadful web site of Westboro Baptist Church, which lists all the people and places God supposedly hates. The execrations list is an Egyptian version of that, invoking the wrath of their deities on despicable people and places. Jerusalem and two of the city princes made Egypt’s hit list. Skeptics deny Jerusalem existed before then, but it usually takes people awhile to get to know me before they start cussin’ me. So I suspect Jerusalem is older. We haven’t found older archaeological evidence, but small simple places don’t leave a lot of evidence and what they left we may just not have found yet.
The oldest Biblical reference to Jerusalem is perhaps in Genesis 14. Abraham, in a Bronze Age style commando raid, rescued his nephew Lot from some marauders who were also crossways with the royalty around where Abraham lived. The local royalty were grateful to see their enemy bested. One of the grateful local kings was also a priest – see being bi-vocational is not new. This priest-king blessed Abraham. That king was Melchizedek, the “King of Salem” – as in Jeru-salem. Melchizedek was the priest of an Amorite God named El Eljon. It’s kind of an odd story -- Abraham a Yahweh-worshiper getting an El Eljon blessing. But it was an interfaith moment. Melchizedek was a Bronze Age inter-faith minister. In the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews calls him the spiritual ancestor of Jesus, who like Melchizedek was a priest connecting all of humanity regardless of religious affiliation, to the Divine. Today Melchizedek’s city is the Holy City of three world religions. It’s fitting.
Of course all of this is too far back to be tested historically. As for whether Jerusalem is where Melchizedek blessed Abraham, that’s possible but not proven. Eusebius writing in the 5th Century said “yes.” Josephus writing in the late 1st Century put Salem a few miles away. Who knows? But we can say this with certainty. Egypt was talking smack about Jerusalem in 1800 BCE. The troubles have been around awhile. It is commonly said that conflict in Jerusalem is caused by the intolerance of Jews, Christians, and Muslims for each other. But the hostilities and violence here go back before Judaism, Christianity, or Islam had been born. That isn’t to say religion isn’t intimately involved in prejudice and aggression. Our hands are far from clean. But it is to say; a simplistic blaming of religion won’t do to explain a human habit of hostility that has been around a long, long time.
There is a second story associated with the founding of Jerusalem. Rabbinic tradition has put 2 Chronicles 3, which says Solomon’s Temple was built over a threshing floor in Mt. Moriah, together with the Genesis 22 story of the sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Conclusion: Jerusalem was made holy in Abraham’s day as the site where Abraham was willing to kill his son, but God provided the ram for the sacrifice. That’s why David made this the capital and Solomon built the Temple here. Again, this isn’t certain. It isn’t clear that the word “Moriah” in Genesis and the word “Moriah” in Chronicles are the same word. But it seems highly plausible that Solomon’s Temple was built on a place of sacrifice for pre-Jewish religions. James Carroll sees Jerusalem as a place where religion and violence (as in human sacrifice) have been mixed from the beginning.
Our class began today. This afternoon we drove around the hills constituting the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was a full circle of looking down from hilltops across the valleys to the hill on which the ancient city is built. It was quite a view! I got what one comes here for – a sense of how the world looked to Jesus. It was profound to look down into the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives knowing that after the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn, then walked across the Kidron Valley here to Gethsemane.
I will adjust but I was thrown off by a disconnect between the readings that had been recommended and the kind of presentation we had today. In pointing out significant locations, the teacher would say, “this happened here” and “that happened there.” But we don’t actually know the story with that kind of certainty. It made the Western skeptic in me cringe a bit. Tell me a place has been associated in tradition with part of the sacred story, and I will relate to that place as if the story had happened there. But tell me, as a fact that something has happened in a particular place and my lawyer’s mind begins taking measurements and saying, “Uh, I don’t think so.”
This visit to Jerusalem is an encounter with complexity. There is blood in Salem, the City of Peace. There was blood here before the city was founded. But there is also peace in the very midst of bloodshed. Jesus healed, forgave, and reconciled – not at Mt. Shasta, not at Esalen, not in Rhinebeck, New York or any blissy place of enlightened smiles – but here. There is truth and wisdom here, mixed with a naiveté, even gullibility that reduces religion to concrete literalism. Yet, that naiveté has a humility about it that is somehow more congenial than the cynicism I have encountered in academic settings or among religious intellectuals who are inordinately proud of what they don’t believe.
This is a mixed place. Being here is a mixed experience. But then so is the church. So is life. Augustine famously said, “If you understand it, it isn’t God.” If this place were comprehensible, it wouldn’t be Jerusalem.
To lighten the day’s reflections, let me tell you about a mischievous moment I got to observe. While we were surveying Jerusalem from a scenic overlook outside the city, I looked down and saw there was lower level of park beneath us. The part of the park we could see was secluded and three young Muslim women were there. They were the sort of hip Muslims wearing hijabs and jeans. They were assembling a couple of hookahs and getting ready to smoke. It was the Middle Eastern version of boys behind the barn rolling their own. Sometimes the complexity and incongruity of Jerusalem is playful and funny – but not often enough.